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Career Changers: from pharmaceuticals to the environment

In this week's Career Changers instalment, Mary-Lou Ciampa finds out why scientist Paul O'Leary is getting out of the lucrative pharmaceuticals industry.

When Paul O’Leary started out, he was quite keen about his job.

‘I absolutely loved my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. I loved the pharmacology, and continually learning and making discoveries’ he says.

‘If I had taken a more academic career path, perhaps I may not have ended up at this point. But other things may have put me off academia.’

He kicked off his science career doing a PhD in drug design and, resulting from that work, he helped to start up a small bio-tech firm.

‘I worked for this start-up company for about one year until funding ran out – we got negative results on the compound: it worked well in test tubes but when put into animals, we didn’t see the desired effects,’ says O’Leary.

In his next job, in a larger Victorian bio-tech company, he started as senior researcher and ended up director of internal research, working on three main drug candidates, from obesity through to chronic pain.

During that time he became dissatisfied with the work and was convinced there had to be something better for him. Several aspects of his chosen field bothered him and prompted the desire to make the move into new territory. The animal testing, the fact that these creatures would ultimately be killed as part of the process, was a key sticking point.

‘It never sat well with me,’ he explains. ‘It was something I could tolerate as a younger scientist, as part of the job. It’s challenging. But I could only do it for so long.’

Secondly, he didn’t like the mix of science and enterprise. ‘I found that decisions being made within the company were mainly business decisions and ignored what you’d call sound scientific practice. I found we had to compromise scientific morals for the sake of business – all under the guise of improving patients’ quality of life. It just wasn’t the case.’

He cites the example of Vioxx and ‘the showdown between the FDA in America and the drug company . . . where the drug company did not act on worrying data showing the drug to have toxic side-effects,’ as another turning point, cementing in his mind the need to make a change.

After the failure of the drug candidates in clinical trial, his company shut down its laboratory and made the scientists redundant. So he took some time out to reassess his direction in life.

‘I always had an interest in environmental issues and aquatic systems. I thought it might be a good idea to get into toxicology and look at fresh water issues,’ he says.

He started networking, and contacted the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).

‘They said, given my background, it could be relevant. It would be better, however, to have some further education in the field’.

He hesitated, however, in the post-GFC climate, thinking things were ‘looking shaky in the economy. Now’s not the time to make a move.’ He admits he faltered slightly due to ‘the magnitude of it all.’

Instead, he applied to a job with one of the biggest bio-tech companies in Australia, got to the last stage of the interview process and ‘pulled the pin’. ‘It’s not for me,’ he says.

‘This confirmed for me that I could always get another job in the industry.’

But as time went on, and he wasn’t making real headway in his new field, ‘I really panicked and got a job with a pharmaceutical company located in a university,’ he says.

Over the next 18 months he began to progress up the ranks again, eventually heading up a small laboratory group. But then it hit him. ‘I can’t keep on doing this, I need to summon up my strength, put fears aside and take a risk,’ O’Leary says.

So he resigned from the role, but continued to work occasionally for the company, and enrolled in a graduate diploma in environment and sustainability, with a view to converting it to a Masters. What he likes about the course is the wide variety of subjects, including areas of law, policy, management, as well as the technical aspect of pollution and sustainability. Ill health has meant that he has had to put off the studies for a while, but he is preparing to take up the books again this semester.

Now in his late thirties, he admits to some feelings of guilt about the desire to make the switch.

‘I’m kind of being selfish – I’m doing this for myself, my own happiness and sense of worth in my career. But I guess I’ll end up being a better father and fiancé’.

What has enabled him to take the steps to venture into a new career has been a small degree of financial security from some savings he has accrued. It has given him the peace of mind of knowing he can still support his partner and child.

‘Where I’d like to end up is working at a place like the EPA. I could see myself using my knowledge of pharmaceuticals and toxic compounds, using these skills in a new role. I also see myself moving up into senior roles, in policy and management.’

However, in the meantime, he concedes, ‘I may need to start off at the bench.’

O’Leary brings up a point that many prospective career changers must consider, the very real possibility of having to relinquish your status and seniority and return to the bottom of the ladder.

‘As time goes on, you get more senior and are better paid.’ He would be giving that up for the moment, at what are traditionally the peak earning years in a worker’s life, to pursue a new career.

He admits it is daunting, moving away from what he’d worked for, over 12 years or so, citing also the ‘penalty of not being employed full time in a high-up job’.

‘There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty.’

‘I don’t know how hard it is going to be to find a job in this new field. Are they going to recognise my other experience? How competitive is it going to be?’

‘I want to give it a shot. I do have contingencies if I fail at that.’

Such as?

‘Secondary school teaching,’ he says, adding, ‘I need a job, I have a young family now.’


For more information on this ‘Career Changers’ series, click here.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

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